Buried Treasure: How an Alberta Inventor Uses Nanotech to Extract Biogas from Landfills

Dr. Steven Kuznicki is using tiny crystalline structures to extract pure methane from buried trash.

Canadians generate a lot of garbage. We produce 777 kilograms of municipal land waste per person each year, the highest in the developed world. All that waste goes to landfills, where it rots underground and produces greenhouse gases, including approximately 20% of Canada’s man-made methane emissions.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. “You can capture the methane and put it into pipelines,” explains Dr. Steven Kuznicki, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta. The methane can then be recycled as a source of energy and burned in GE’s omnivorous Jenbacher engines.

The typical process for deriving gas from landfills yields an impure product with carbon dioxide and nitrogen in it. Kuznicki wanted to find a way to separate out these other gases to get pure methane.

For the last several decades, he’s been working with a versatile compound called titanosilicate, which he manipulates to form tiny, sieve-like crystalline structures with nano-sized pores—aka Molecular Gates™—that allow some molecules to pass easily inside. Kuznicki develops methods to control the size of the pores, so that certain molecules enter the compound while others remain outside. These pores are super small, just a handful of microns wide.     

This process is perfect for heavy-duty clean-up jobs. “We synthesize adsorbents that can separate and purify a wide range of elements and compounds,” Kuznicki notes. “We’ve been using titanosilicate compounds to take lead out of water for 20 years.” 

Since landfills are concentrated producers of methane gases, adapting his adsorbent compounds to biogas production was a natural fit. In the early 2000s, Kuznicki invented a titanosilicate substance that could separate nitrogen from methane. Kuzinicki’s Molecular Gate technology became a mainstay of biogas production, and is used in 70 locations around the world.

But commercial uses are limited by the cost and efficiency of molecular gate compounds. “I wanted to look for something better and cheaper that would have a wide range of applications,” says Kuznicki.

Over recent years he’s been working on a new product, and this year his company Extraordinary Adsorbents Inc is launching a compound called RPZ that performs the same function, but that is easier to synthesize, costs less, and is more efficient. Now that the basic tool for producing high-quality fuel from landfills is cheaper and simpler to use, the path is clear for Kuznicki and his team: “Our job is to bring it into the broader world.” 

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